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Where to check for asbestos when buying a house

Row of old terraced houses
4th September 2017

When buying an older property there are a number of important things to look out for, from structural issues like subsidence, potential costly repairs to dodgy wiring or plumbing. Buyers of older houses tend to be savvier about potential issues, doing their research and keeping an eye out for obvious problems. Quite often though, the expense and health risks of asbestos are overlooked, simply because buyers don’t know what to look for and aren’t aware that even the most detailed of house surveys don’t include asbestos testing as standard.

Why Asbestos Checks Matter

Asbestos is a carcinogenic substance that can lead to serious health conditions years after exposure. Approximately 6,000 people a year die from an asbestos-related disease in the UK, and many more are diagnosed with an asbestos-related illness. Asbestos can be easily disturbed, releasing fibres which are then breathed in. These fibres can, sometimes decades later, develop into asbestosis, lung cancer, pleural plaques or even mesothelioma. These life-changing conditions are most often associated with people who have worked in industrial industries, but the presence of asbestos in older houses, that will most likely need renovating, mean DIYers, handymen and construction workers also stand a chance of being exposed to this dangerous substance.

The myriad uses that asbestos has had over the year’s means it can be found in places you wouldn’t immediately suspect; it has been used as fire protection, adhesive, sealant, decoration and in materials for nearly every part of a building. Houses built between 1940 and 1980 are the most likely to contain asbestos, but it could be found in any building, including homes, built before the year 2000, as all types of asbestos were only banned in the UK in 1999.

Garages/Sheds

The most common place you will find asbestos in this day and age is in old sheds and garages. It’s also probably the obvious place you’ll spot signs of asbestos when viewing a potential new home for you and your family. In most cases it can be found in the form of asbestos cement roofing but can easily have been used in walls and the cemented floor. Outbuildings seem to have survived longer, as people don’t tend to replace these structures but choose to maintain them, over removing them all together.

How to spot it: The roofing and walls often look like dull corrugated steel or large cement sheets, both of which are quite easy to spot. However, cement flooring that contains asbestos is almost impossible to identify just by looking, so a test should be carried out.

shed with asbestos roof coating

Walls

Asbestos was widely used within textured finishes around the home in materials such as plaster, wallpaper or tiles. This gives you a lot to look at and to ask about when it comes to past decoration and renovation of the property in question. The very walls themselves need to be considered, as AIB (asbestos insulation board) was used extensively in house-building – it may be used in small sections or for partition walls.

How to spot it: Look for walls with a rough appearance or that have shapes moulded into the plaster, such as swirls or fans. Walls, tiles and wallpaper can be impossible to identify on sight alone, so be cautious when assessing your potential new home and if you’re unsure, get an expert to inspect them.

textured wall containing asbestos fibres

Ceilings

More common than textured walls, was the fad people had for textured ceilings, and as soon as you see one in a property, alarm bells should start ringing; particularly if there are cracks or other damage to it. If every ceiling in the house is textured you need to seriously consider what the cost could be for removal and to replace them. You may also have to look out for AIB above your head too.

How to spot it: Any textured ceiling style could contain asbestos. The designs you see can be swirls, a kind of pebble-dash effect or elegant fans. Again, asbestos insulating board can be impossible to detect just by looking at it.

textured ceiling containing asbestos fibres

Attic and Airing Cupboards

On your first viewing of the house, asking to peak in the attic or the airing cupboard might feel like overkill, but if you’re truly interested in a property, visit again and bring a torch. Attics and airing cupboards can contain several asbestos hazards such as insulation, pipe lagging, boiler covers and even water tanks.

How to spot it: It’s unlikely you’ll be able to tell if any of these are made with asbestos just by looking, unless there is damage that reveals potential asbestos fibres. However, the presence of a water tank in the attic may indicate that there is some long overdue renovation needed throughout the property.

asbestos pipe lagging

Floors

Flooring doesn’t often come to mind when considering an asbestos hazard. Don’t worry about your original wooden floors though; it’s cement, tiles and tile adhesives that you want to be wary of. Asbestos was added to these products as a cheap, easy and fast way to make them stronger. Add in the popularity of asbestos as a fire-resistant material and you can understand why it was used and how it became very popular, so quickly.

How to spot it: Unfortunately, the only sign will be the age of the flooring. You might be able to see small pieces of white fibre upon a very close inspection of the cement, but other than that, a test is the only thing that will reveal if it has been made with asbestos.

asbestos in floor tile cement

Guttering & Facias

Guttering and facias have to be sturdy and long-lasting, and so asbestos was used to strengthen these products. While these aren’t going to be as much of a risk to health as asbestos within the house, it is much easier for them to get damaged and release asbestos fibres into the surrounding air. If guttering and facias are made from asbestos products, it could be another sign that asbestos products have been used elsewhere in the construction of the property.

How to spot it: More modern houses use uPVC, similar to double-glazed window frames making the grey, asbestos cement material relatively easy to spot. Some houses also have wooden or concrete facias, but building age will help determine if you’re looking at asbestos or standard concrete.

asbestos coating on a gutter

Roof

Roof tiles and roof felt, were used for roofing due to ease of production and lower costs, which was essential in the post-war housing boom. As with guttering and facias, they are a little less hazardous in being located outside of the house, but of course can easily be damaged. If damage occurs, this type of product can easily introduce asbestos fibres into your home and garden.

How to spot it: Again it will be difficult to see from the ground but perhaps quite obvious up close. This particular asbestos issue is one that you might be able to determine by the colouring of the tiles from a distance but will need to be confirmed with an asbestos survey.

asbestos roof tiles

Windows

The windows and frames are not the concern – it’s the sealant and window panels used around them, both inside and outside, that could contain asbestos fibres. It’s a less common place to find asbestos products, but if you suspect a lot of asbestos products have been used elsewhere in the building, check this too.

How to spot it: An AIB window panel might be identifiable with a quick once-over, but asbestos sealant won’t be. A clear indicator could be the age of the windows – if they’re at least a few decades old then it’s time to consider an asbestos survey.

asbestos in window sealant

To be certain of the asbestos risk of a property, paying for a professional asbestos survey on top of a RICs building survey is essential. If you’re unwilling or unable to identify and safely deal with asbestos then you must seriously consider not buying the property all together.

Your Legal Friend are specialists in asbestos claims and are aware of the dangers the substance poses to you and your family. If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with an asbestos-related disease and wish to pursue a claim then contact us for a free initial consultation. We understand how difficult this type of diagnosis can be, which is why we make the claims process as easy as possible, but is also why we make a concerted effort to raise awareness of asbestos.